June 20, 2002|By AL KALIN, Staff Columnist

Do you ever daydream about what the world would be like today if such and such had happened? I do.

For example, what if the American Indian had invented the compound bow, or what if Lewis and Clarke had a workable GPS, or if Abraham Lincoln had not been assassinated?

These questions started me thinking about recent events and more questions came to mind. What if the fish had never been put in the Salton Sea? Where would the water transfer be today? Would we have a Salton Sea Authority?

Before the Valley was developed the Salton Sea had been filled numerous times by the Colorado River over thousands of years and bonytail, carp, humpback suckers, striped mullet, rainbow trout and desert pupfish lived in the lake. The last natural filling of the Salton Sea occurred in 1891, just a scant few years before water flowed into the Imperial Valley though a manmade canal. At the time surveyors calculated the surface to be more than 100,000 acres in size, about half the size of the Salton Sea today.


When I read about all these big numbers being pushed around for environmental mitigation and how to best save the Salton Sea, the fish and the birds that depend on it for survival, I have to wonder who started it all.

Between 1905 and 1950 various fish plants were made in the Salton Sea and new species entered through the canals from the Colorado River. These included mosquitofish, striped bass, threadfin shad and longjaw mudsuckers. In 1934, 15,000 silver salmon fingerlings were shipped by rail from San Francisco and dumped into the Salton Sea, never to be seen again. Rainbow and black mollies entered the sea when a tropical fish farm near Thermal washed away in a flash flood.

But in 1950 the California Department of Fish and Game made 15 trips to San Felipe, Mexico. They caught and transplanted into the Salton Sea more than 18,000 fish, composed of more than 30 different species.

Five years later mudsucker, croaker, sargo and orangemouth corvina had established themselves and fishermen started arriving.

Then in the late '60s the Imperial Irrigation District canal system became infested with an aquatic weed known as hydrilla, a weed that if not controlled would have plugged the entire IID canal system. The California Department of Fish and Game quickly came to the water district's aid and suggested tilapia be released into the canals to control the noxious aquatic weed. They pointed out that not only do tilapia multiply rapidly, their main diet was aquatic vegetation.

There was one teeny weenie problem, though. The Department of Fish and Game hadn't done its homework and weren't aware tilapia didn't like fast-flowing water. It wasn't long before all the tilapia worked their way down the canals and rivers and into the Salton Sea.

"Not to worry," said the Department of Fish and Game as it made another teeny weenie mistake. "Tilapia," they said, "won't survive in salt water."

Again, the Fish and Game had failed to do its homework. The species of tilapia released in the canals were originally from Africa and spent much of their time swimming and living in the Indian Ocean as they made their way from one river delta to the next.

As the tilapia flourished and multiplied in the nutrient-rich water of the Salton Sea new birds began to arrive. Where great blue herons were seen only once or twice a year, now 75 could be seen from one location, feeding on small tilapia along the shore. Soon thousands inhabited the Valley. Cormorants, which usually made a living along the Colorado River, showed up for the easy meal and multiplied by the hundreds. Snowy egrets along with their bigger cousin, the great white egret, also arrived. The pelicans arrived in large numbers, too.

All these birds were dependent on the tilapia for food. However, in the early 1980s we experienced a few years of cold winters in which the Salton Sea water temperature dipped below 50 degrees. The largest fish die-off in Salton Sea history occurred as virtually all the tilapia perished and washed ashore. For weeks the stench was terrible as the fish slowly rotted in the cool weather.

The bird numbers dropped. Within a few years, as warm weather returned, so did the tilapia, and soon the birds were back to the same high levels, feeding on tilapia. This year small tilapias are virtually non-existent along the shores of the Salton Sea and no grown tilapias are being caught. Nobody seems to know what happened to them. The birds aren't as plentiful either. I haven't seen any dead birds along the shore and can only assume they moved on when the pickings became slim, just as they have in the past.

That brings us back to all this talk of environmental mitigation and who should pay for what if a water transfer is to take place. The Department of Fish & Game are the ones who stocked the Salton Sea with croaker, sargo, corvina and tilapia and caused this whole problem in the first place. Maybe they should pay for the mitigation costs.

>> Outdoor Tales writer, Al Kalin, can be reached on the Internet

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